I’ve been spending some time lately wandering through cemeteries, chasing down departed ancestors. I particularly love the old country graveyards, some of them alongside small churches, some of them on hillsides along gravel roads, some of them only accessible by driving through a farmer’s barn lot or down grassy lanes between cornfields. The stones are sometimes so worn that I have to trace the letters with my fingers to make out the names of the dead. My great-great-grandmother’s stone has fallen to the ground and most of it is blackened from the elements, but still at its top her name is perfectly legible, Elizabeth J. Beneath that name, I trace the letters etched into the stone and make out the last name, “Martin.”
Her daughter, Nancy A., lies beside her, dead at the age of 21 in 1861. Elizabeth’s husband, my great-great-grandfather, John A. Martin, rests in another graveyard a few miles to the south. I’d always wondered why they weren’t buried together. Now a posting on findagrave.com tells me that his second wife, Eliza French Phillips Martin, insisted that he not be buried next to Elizabeth. This is a story I never heard in my family.
John Martin married Eliza when he was 70 and she was in her early thirties. They went on to have four children together. The word is this second marriage caused some strife within John’s first family, caused some of his children to relocate to a distant southern county. All families have these secrets, these stories, the ones they’d rather not be public. Woe to the family that has a memoirist born to it. The past will never be protected. If we decide to tell it, we have to tell it all.
But what about the value of not knowing everything when it comes to the writing of memoir? How can our ignorance pay off when we tell family stories? How can we use the absence of information to lend a richness to our memoirs?
When I wrote a book called Turning Bones, I reconstructed and imagined the stories of my ancestors. In my imagining, I began to create my long-gone family members as I chose to have them, staying true to the facts that I had and using them to suggest an imagined life. I imagined the story of Elizabeth’s death and how John must have carried that with him. I imagined the story of his romance with Eliza. In the process, each choice of invention that I made revealed more about me than about the actual people with whose lives I was taking liberty. Working with what I didn’t know, then, and filling in the gaps with my imagination became another way of fleshing out the complications of my own character. Had I known too much, who’s to say what that would have closed off in my exploration of the self.
We tell the whole truth about ourselves in memoir by not letting ourselves off the hook, by looking closely, by being honest, by being willing to treat ourselves with the same level of deep investigation as we do others. Sometimes, though, we do this work by having just enough fact to suggest an imagined life. That imagined life becomes a way of revealing more of our own lives. When my fingers trace the letters in hard-to-read gravestones, I find the name, “Martin,” in those long-ago etchings. When I go looking for my ancestors and their stories, I find myself.